The Alps as a “third place”?

by Terence MacNamee

Depopulation of rural areas is a problem in Europe as elsewhere. Industry tends not to stick around rural areas, but to go where the action is, namely to the big cities – and the jobs go with it. There seems little that can be done. Here in Switzerland, neo-liberals advocate everybody moving from “peripheral regions” to the cities and leaving the Alps as one big national park.

Yet it seems hard to understand why the urbanization trend should be inevitable. In the era of computers and the Internet, people should be able to work at home or in local groups, like the watchmakers did in the past as a cottage industry in parts of Switzerland. Why is this not happening? Well, it could be because the locals are not computer-savvy enough. They don’t belong to the modern mobile international élite.

Now some people in the rather peripheral Grisons canton, where I live, have come up with the idea of attracting the international élite here. They want to develop the Lower Engadine Valley, which is a good way even from the main local centre of St Moritz, into a place where the digital nomads of the world can come and stay for a while. It will give them a break from fast-paced big-city life, supposedly, and help them to avoid burnout. The only requirement is that they need very good wireless internet access to stay connected to their workplace, wherever it is. The tourist infrastructure is already available in the Engadine, with hotels and the like geared to skiing tourism.

The promoters of this idea are pitching the idea of a “third place”: a place that is not home or office, but a convivial space where (among other things) work can be done. Solo workers increasingly telecommute from such third places, it is said, because at home they feel lonely and isolated. So, the reasoning goes, wouldn’t stressed-out business and computer types, who are globalized nomads anyway, want to get away from the office just to work in a refreshingly different environment – a “third place”?

The idea is that the snowy, Alpine Engadine valley will appeal to the international business élite as just such a “third place”. Whether this is going to attract Indians from Bangalore who have never skied in their life, I would doubt. But the folks here are Romansh. For generations they have seen their meal ticket as being a German-speaking tourist on skis. Whether they can adjust to a new type of visitor who probably doesn’t speak German and may not know how to ski or even want to, is a moot point. But the promoters are optimistic. So: snow, anyone?